Creating a new breed of digital natives - Education Matters Magazine
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Creating a new breed of digital natives

Teaching children appropriate technology use rather than simply taking it away from them is key to preparing children for the digital world of the future, writes Associate Professor of Educational Technology at CQUniversity, Dr Michael A. Cowling.I remember the first car I ever drove at the tender age of 16. It was a rusty old Toyota Corolla, 20 years old, with no power steering, no central locking, and a different key for the door than the one in the ignition. It was my Mum’s car, our family runabout car, and was famously christened the ‘leaky boat’ by my brother when he finally got to drive it, because by then the rust was so bad that water came up through the floor when it rained.

But the thing was, it represented freedom. Mum and Dad knew the risks of helping me get a license, and even got to experience my driving firsthand sometimes, but they also knew the benefits it would bring for me in the future. Giving me the keys to the leaky boat to drive around town was a balance, it certainly increased the danger in my life, but it also helped me set up a life for the future, so Mum and Dad did it without hesitation.

And yet, more than 20 years later, we seem to hesitate to do the same thing with technology. Despite all using technology every day, when it comes to our kids our position seems to be that it’s often better to take it out of their hands. We know the benefits and we know the risks, but instead of handing them the keys, our approach seems to be to lock them away in a cupboard. School after school seems to be taking this approach, banning personal technology devices for students rather than encouraging their use.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for balance. Young people, especially those in primary school, clearly don’t have the experience necessary to understand how to use technology properly. Just like they need to learn how to tie their own shoelaces, interact with other students, or follow the school schedule, they also need to learn how to use technology. Understanding what websites they are supposed to be visiting, what apps to use, and what is appropriate on technology is an important part of their skillset.

But the challenge is we need to let them use the technology so they can understand how best to use it. Mum and Dad knew I needed to practice driving, so they handed me the keys to the car, and then tried to remain patient when I ran it into a pole at university, or backed it into a tree. It’s a learning experience, but it’s an important one, especially when those poles and trees jump out at you.

So, I’m here to advocate a responsible adoption of technology by our young people. Sure, give them an old beaten up phone, or let them use a device with a cracked screen for six months (as long as it still works), but let’s give them a chance to learn how to use technology effectively. No more lining the mobile phones up on the whiteboard at the front of class, no more asking students to put phones in a pillowcase as they walk in the door, instead let’s help them understand the appropriate use of technology, the same way as we help them to understand how to follow the schedule and socialise with the kids in their class.

Of course, some of this might be a challenge, because as adults we are still learning ourselves how the technology is best used. Part of this is because technology moves so fast that we are struggling to keep up, but part of it is also because the truth is we’ll never understand it as well as our students do as we prepare them for a digital world that we might never live in.

So perhaps the best we can do is set some broad guidelines about practice in digital. Just like provisional drivers get told they must drive slower than anybody else, with less passengers and not at night, perhaps we need to tell kids that there are limits on technology, and that they only get to use the device for five minutes at a time, or in certain apps at certain times of day, or only for reference (and not communication). That’s okay, as long as they’re not up against the whiteboard.

In this way, we can be sure that we are balancing the benefits and the challenges, and setting an expectation for the positive use of technology in the future. At the recent 2018 San Diego Comic Con, popular Science Communicator Adam Savage was asked about how we could prepare kids for the future, and help prepare them for the world. To be expected from the man who popularised a show about understanding science and busting myths, he advocated for teaching them how the technology works, both the benefits and the risks, so that they can make an informed choice about how to use it in the future.

Calling on us to produce a new breed of digital natives with a nuanced understanding of technology, Savage perhaps hit on a key idea: that the future is shaped by these students, and shouldn’t we try to just do our best to set them up for this future? Sure, you can be scared for their future, and you should be concerned, but that doesn’t mean you don’t hand them the keys. If we want them to learn how to use technology in a positive way, we need to give them a chance to practice positive technology use.

After all, setting out on a leaky boat is better than missing the trip entirely by standing on shore, and it might even teach you to swim.